Documenting a Life

Diaries / Judy Cassab

I began keeping a diary when I was 12 years old, and have continued to record my life ever since then. I have 35 handwritten volumes which are locked in a cupboard. It is the only place in the house that I lock. My husband, Jancsi, has never seen them, nor has anyone else. I certainly never intended publishing them.

I had always thought that I expressed my thoughts with a brush. I never knew that I could write. Writing, I thought, is just a habit like washing my teeth; I could not go to bed without doing it. I was amazed when I re-read my diaries - 45 years later.

When I turned 70, my friends Bernie and Barbara Leser invited us for dinner. Bernie asked: 'Judy, when are you going to do something about your diaries?' 'When I am old,' I answered aggressively. A few minutes later I realised - I am old! Bernie started the ball rolling.

I do not feel anxious about my paintings. I can always paint others. It is different with the diaries. I lost the first 11 years of my diaries when they were left in my childhood home in Beregszász and perished during the war. I lost everything else I had there. But objects, even beautiful objects are replaceable. One can never recapture a 12-year-old self.

I have had the diaries typed into nine volumes. The National Library of Australia first asked me for them, and I feel relieved that they are now held safely there, just in case our flat burns down. There are 1600 pages, and Bernie suggested that it be cut down to a more manageable 500. 'Who will do that?' I wondered. My friend, Elizabeth Riddell did; a labour of love.

I no longer possess the diary from my 18th year either, but I can tell you how I met my husband, Jancsi, and some other memories that are recorded in my diaries.

After matriculation I participated in a debating team. Among the adults in the audience, sat Jancsi with a family friend, Feri. Jancsi was 36 years old, double my age - but, as he later assured me, this proportion would diminish with every passing year.

Jancsi had remained a bachelor, and no friend or family member had succeeded in marrying him off. But, when I sat down after debating, he said to Feri, 'See that girl? That's the one I want to marry.' Feri introduced us, and I fell for him just as he fell for me.

Jancsi, a chemical engineer, was the director of a brewery in Podhering near a town called Munkacs. The brewery was owned by Count Schönborn, an aristocrat whose ancestral castle, Schönborn, near Vienna, had 300 rooms resplendent with masterpieces by Rembrandt, Rubens, El Greco and the like. But the Count preferred to live in Beregvár, another smaller castle in the forests near the brewery.

When Jancsi proposed three weeks after our first meeting, I told him I loved him but could only marry him if he promised he would always let me remain a painter.

How he kept that promise is a golden thread all through our long marriage. He started right away.

'You are very young,' he told me. 'I want you to go to Prague and study painting for a year before you marry me. I don't want you to say in five years, "Oh, if only I would have studied".' (Prague was our capital in 1938. Our town became part of Czechoslovakia between the First and Second World Wars.)

By sending me away, he really chained me. I pined and longed for him, and after my lessons I had a regular cry.

Hitler's tanks roaring into Prague cut that year short. I saw a never ending multitude of them occupying the city, and I knew I had to get home fast. After long hours of standing in a queue at the German embassy waiting for travel papers, a voice boomed out: 'Jews to the end of the queue'.

It was the first time in my life that I was not a girl, not a woman, not a human being, but a Jew. It took three days to get that paper stamped and two days on slow trains to get home.

Jancsi and I married in 1939. Someone asked Jancsi why he had not married ten years before. 'How could I?' he answered. 'She was only eight.'

Two years later Jancsi was sent to a labour camp, a forced labour camp, and we knew that we would not be allowed any contact. So, before he left, we chose a star on which to meet. We both kept this nightly appointment. Jancsi says this kept him alive.

We had one meeting after he had been gone a year. A visiting corporal told me that Jancsi's group would be travelling through Beregszász, coming from Poland, going to Russia. A friend, whose husband was on the same train, and I spent a whole day at the railway station, not knowing the arrival time. It was January, freezing cold. The train came at 3 am and stopped for only a few minutes. We raced towards the cattle wagons where our men shouted our names. We reached up our arms, and they grabbed us and lifted us into the crowded spaced. The train moved on. There was a wooden crate in the centre on which stood a square of plum jam [1] and a flickering candle. By the time day dawned we were near the Russian border at Volóc, and when the train slowed we jumped into the snow.

Most young husbands begged their wives to stay home with mother, but Jancsi told me: 'If this has to happen to us, then at least take the opportunity, go to Budapest and study painting.' So I did.

By great good luck my teacher was Aurél Bernàth, a fine artist. On my first day we were given the task of drawing, with charcoal, an old woman's hands. Bernàth thought mine was the best drawing in the class and asked me if I worked with oils. I certainly did, although there was no one to teach me in Beregszász and no gallery. Only postcards my parents bought in Italy. My teacher said, 'Bring in a painting tomorrow'. I brought in a portrait of a blonde woman with bare shoulders and a fox fur. Bernàth was speechless. Finally he declared, 'It is awful'. I fell into a cellar of despair. 'Why? But why?' 'Because it's kitsch.'

At the time I did not understand. Bernàth continued to break down my preconceptions. He told me to work with pastels - a medium I had not used before. He wanted me to draw without so much as a single glance at the paper. The loops and curves I discovered surprised me. 'It's your subconscious,' he said. He advised me to stop painting portraits for a while. 'Do landscapes, still lifes.'

And then Jancsi came back, one of the very few who lived through the slave labour camps. He witnessed whole communities executed by the SS. He told me that the tragedy of the Jews is that they cling together, and so are much more easily rounded up-like sheep.

We lived together in Budapest, but before long we heard that the Jews in Beregszász were now in ghettos. In the middle of May 19__, my mother, grandmother, my uncle, my stepfather, Jancsi's mother, brother and his family were all deported. Witnesses saw our family being herded into cattle trains. Eighty people locked in a wagon with only a bucket of water. No food.

Our friend Feri, the one who had introduced us, went to his office, carefully placed his yellow star on his desk and shot himself. Jancsi made me take my yellow star off. I shed my old self and became Maria Koperdák, my maid.

I took a job in a pharmaceutical factory and Jancsi chose to live in a Jewish house. We no longer had any open contact. Once we met on the street, and we passed one another like strangers, for he wore the yellow star and I did not.

I compelled my body to work eight hours every day, and kept trying to work out where the Allies were. Refugees poured into Budapest from Transylvannia. In October the Governor announced on the radio that the Russians were only 60 kilometres from the capital. He decided that instead of having the city shot to pieces we would surrender.

Oh, the joy. I was on the way to the Jewish house when I met Jancsi, who flew to me, his eyes brimming over. And a complete stranger came running towards Jancsi, embraced him, and with the same movement tore the yellow star off his coat. The euphoria lasted all day. However, towards evening the radio began playing German marches. Rumour held that a Nazi group now occupied the radio station. They had shot the announcer and commandeered the microphone. There had been a coup.

The fight for Budapest went on. Immediately the Nazis began evacuating the Jews from Jewish houses. I asked the military commandant in the factory to help me get my husband out. He escorted us to my Uncle Gyuszi's flat, which he shared with his gentile girlfriend, Manyi. She was already hiding a mother and child, and welcomed Jancsi.

The next day Jancsi had decided to move into the ghetto. He thought it would be better than this furtive existence. Melodramatically, I declared, 'If you go into the ghetto, so do I'. The doorbell rang and Kati and Frici, his oldest friends, fell upon him in an embrace. Kati was an actress and Frici a film director. 'Thank god we have found you! We've looked for you everywhere in Budapest. And now you are coming with us and we will hide you.'

'You are mad!' he answered. 'Don't you know that those who are hiding Jews are being shot too?'

'For God's sake,' said Kati, 'What are friends for?' And so we took Jancsi to Róna ucca, in Zuglò.

He spent three months there. Whenever a stranger came to the door he hid in a wardrobe. Not only did Kati and Frici risk their lives, they also risked their family, who had escaped from Debrecen before the Russians occupied it.

We became subterranean creatures. The siege of Budapest was on. Most people were afraid. I felt fear only when the bombing stopped. Electricity, gas and water supplies ceased. We started to ration food. I tried not to think whether Jancsi had survived the bombs while locked in the wardrobe in Zuglò. When some horses were shot, we ran out with kitchen knives and carved their flesh. It was a feast.

When the first Russian entered our cellar, Jancsi was with him. Zuglò had been taken 11 days before the Russians reached us. Jancsi moved with them wanting to reach me and take me back to Zuglò before the looting and raping began.

In February we left Zuglò and moved back to the city. We lived on Ràkòczy ùt in a lawyer's office we shared with four other families. The windows were shot out and it was bitterly cold. The desk was our bed, and we took the velvet drapes off the windows and used them as blankets.

In March the trains started. The crowd shoved in through windows, others sat on the roof of the train. When we arrived in Beregszász I could not grasp reality. After Budapest's burning houses and dead bodies, these houses were untouched. It seemed that every stone and blade of grass screamed in our ears, 'Nothing has happened, nothing has changed'. But the soul of the town was missing. I met people I knew who had returned from concentration camps looking like skeletons. There, for the first time I heard of the crematoriums and how, to the tune of Dr Mengele's 'Jattendrais', Jews were selected to be gassed to death.

We went back to Budapest. My two children were born there. When I found I was expecting our first child, we moved to a one-room flat which had no glass in the windows, but we did have pergamen paper. And since Beregszász was now part of Soviet Russia, there was nothing I could have saved from our old house, not even basics like cups and saucers, or blankets and pillows. I borrowed all these from a friend.

Then there was a miracle.

Jancsi made his first business trip to Vienna since the war. He went with the brewery truck. I was still worrying about nappies and towels for the baby, which were unobtainable in Budapest. The next evening the doorbell rang, and there stood the driver of the truck with two large suitcases. 'Your husband sent these from Vienna,' he said. When I opened the first one I saw baby shirts, nappies and towels, and realised that these used to be mine. I knew my mother had left many things in Vienna when my parents separated in 1929, but I had not given them a thought in all those years. I regarded this as a parcel from Anyu, my mother. From up there.

When Jancsi returned, he had a rational explanation for my miracle. His former boss, the Count Schönborn, took them out of storage and placed them in the cellar of his house in Renngasse. There were more cases coming in the next truck. Then my friend who had lent us our pillows and blankets announced she was getting married and needed to have them back. 'Of course,' I said and tramped all over the city trying to buy or borrow others with no result. I came home that evening utterly exhausted and saw three big cases in the foyer. The caretaker opened them for me. The first one had pillows, eiderdowns and blankets.

We spent four more years in Hungary. In 1949 we finally made the decision to emigrate. We spent a year in Vienna, and another one in Salzburg, waiting for our permit. We came to Australia in 1951 with our two boys. One was six years old, the other was four. We stayed in a boarding house in Bondi. The four of us shared one room. I shared a gas stove with eight other Hungarian refugee women. We arrived without English or money. But I did have a letter of introduction to a man by the name of Charles Lloyd Jones. When I asked our landlord who this Charles Lloyd Jones actually was, he thought I suffered from delusions of grandeur. I contacted him, and he told me he was being painted by an artist called Dobell. (I did not know who Dobell was.) However, he commissioned me to paint his wife. When his son, the young Charles, came to pick me up from the boarding house in a Rolls Royce, all my neighbours hung out of the windows in disbelief. When we finally moved into a flat and Jancsi had started work and the children were going to school and kindergarten, I had a break-down.

In 1955 I won two prizes. The Perth Prize, and later the Women's Weekly Prize with a portrait of Judy Barraclough. I won the Women's Weekly Prize again the following year with a portrait of Elaine Haxton.

At this stage of our new life in Australia, painting was still considered a hobby. People used to ask me, 'And what do you do?' 'I paint,' I answered. 'Yes, yes. But what do you do?' Painting was obviously something one didn't make a living at, and could not be considered work. So in order to make a living I began to teach, but we struggled. Jancsi insisted that we not touch the money I had won in prizes. 'It's your going-away money,' he said.

When the time came for me to travel, I went through hell. Everything I had been longing for - Paris, Rome, New York - shrank to the size of a pinpoint. Jancsi and the children grew to the height of the Eiffel Tower, and all I wanted was to stay with them and never leave.

During one of my crying fits Jancsi, who was staying behind with the children, said, 'After all, we are only half of your life. Stop being a coward.'

This then was the studying time I could not have earlier, because of the war. London was my last stop. Judy Barraclough's friend, the famous model, Barbara Goalen, sat for a portrait. It was seen by her neighbour, Peter Thorneycroft, Chancellor of the Exchequer, who had just resigned. He rang and commissioned me to do his portrait. He said, 'I have time now, you see, as I am unemployed.' I also painted Hugh Gaitskell, Leader of the Opposition.

By the time I left for home I had several commissions which I did not have time to do on that visit, but for which I returned a year later. I took it into my head to have an exhibition in London. It seemed sheer lunacy, but I took along a portfolio of my work. Harry Miller of the Redfern Gallery, which was booked up for six years, sent me to the Crane Kalman Gallery. He added, 'It's heartbreaking business this, but what do you expect? Painters wait years and years, and you want to do it in a month?'

Andre Kalman had already told me on the phone that he had no opening for years, but was willing to look at my work. So it happened:

'Are you from Budapest?' he asked.

'No, From Beregszász.'

'I am from Mateszalka.'

'I have been to Mateszelka once, and I was invited to dinner by a chemist whose name was Kalman.'

'He was my father.'

We were both so delighted about this (his whole family perished in Auschwitz) that, since he liked my paintings, he arranged to give me a show in October 1959.

May 1959 brought me my first sight of Alice Springs. I knew at once how important the moment was: a recognition that now I knew why we had immigrated to Australia. I felt like Ali Baba discovering the treasure cave. I felt greedy. I wanted it all. I began 14 pictures in a week. I have never experienced such colour. It was like a physical force hitting not only from the front, but sideways and from the back as well.

At that time Ayers Rock only had one place to stay, a shed with a barrel on the roof to catch the rainwater if it rained, and a tap for show. The sheets we slept on were flown, on a little plane, to Alice Springs to be washed.

The rock was a wonder, like the Taj Mahal. Indescribable. Full of legends, caves, murals, ponds. The forms recall Henry Moore. I also found the face of the Sphinx and Lady Godiva.

My show at the Crane Kalman Gallery in London opened. I exhibited mostly the Alice Springs paintings and did well. There were good reviews in the Times, Observer, and others. A painting of a woman's head was bought by a director of the Orient Line. He took it to his office where Sir Colin Anderson saw it. He was not only chairman of the Orient Line, but also chairman of the Tate Gallery. He said, 'If this girl could get a likeness, she would be just right to paint Princess Alexandra, who will launch our new ship, the Oriana.' They went to the gallery and saw photographs of my London portraits.

'Could you undertake such a commission?' asked Sir Colin. My fare would be paid, of course. There was only one condition: the commission must be a secret. Talking about it would jeopardise the whole project. So I walked away, stunned, as if I had a bomb in my handbag.

In 1960, in early March, a letter advised me that Her Majesty the Queen would allow me to use the yellow drawing room at Buckingham Palace as a studio.

In the Palace, my canvas looked like a green man from Mars, but I kept imagining the portrait for a ship, rather than a palace. Meanwhile, under my window there was the changing of the guard.

'Are you sure six sittings will be enough?' asked a secretary.

'I think so,' I said.

'It's just that we have to vacate the yellow drawing room by the 22nd of April because on the 23rd, General de Gaulle is moving in.'

All this seems very strange as I try to look at it from Beregszász and my childhood. It was the beginning of an exciting phase of my life when I had enough commissions in England to keep me busy for two months each year.

At home, someone was teasing Jancsi. 'How can you let your wife go to London for so long every year?' His answer was, 'You know, I prefer to have a happy wife for 10 months a year, than a frustrated one for 12.'

Just part of the golden thread I told you about.


1. Plum jam was packaged in large boxes and sold in slices. It was very thick and concentrated.

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